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Inside CNET’s AI-powered SEO money machine

Every morning around 9AM ET, CNET publishes two stories listing the day’s mortgage rates and refinance rates. The story templates are the same every day. Affiliate links for loans pepper the page. Average rates float up and down day by day, and sentences are rephrased slightly, but the tone — and content — of each article is as consistent as clockwork. They are perfectly suited to being generated by AI.

The byline on the mortgage stories is Justin Jaffe, the managing editor of CNET Money, but the stories aren’t listed on Jaffe’s actual author page. Instead, they appear on a different author page that only contains his mortgage rate stories. His actual author page lists a much wider scope of stories, along with a proper headshot and bio.

CNET is the subject of a swirling controversy around the use of AI in publishing, and it’s Jaffe’s team that’s been at the center of it all. Last week, Futurism reported that the website had been quietly publishing articles written using artificial intelligence tools. Over 70 articles have appeared with the byline “CNET Money Staff” since November, but an editorial note about a robot generating those stories was only visible if readers did a little clicking around. 

It wasn’t just readers that were confused about what stories on CNET involve the use of AI. Beyond the small CNET Money team, few people at the outlet know specific details about the AI tools — or the human workflow around them — that outraged readers last week, according to current and former staffers who spoke to The Verge on the condition that they remain anonymous. Under the two-year-old management of a private equity company called Red Ventures, CNET’s editorial staff has often been left wondering: was this story written by AI or a co-worker? Even today, they’re still not sure.

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